From OAP dances to kids' rugby tournaments, if it's a community activity you can bet Amir Akram and his Budgens store in Tonteg, South Wales, are involved.
Amir, who joined the family business straight from school at the age of 16, prides himself on running a community store in the truest sense. "We have a proper village atmosphere - all of our customers have known us for years," he says.
"The community has taken our family into it so it's nice to give back. We support local events with our wines and donate raffle prizes, which is all for goodwill."
Amir's father Mohammed bought the Tonteg store in 1986, but retired 10 years ago, leaving the daily operation to Amir and his brother Kashif, who now runs the family's travel agency in Cardiff. Amir's wife Rukhsana and his sister Shanaz, as well as Kashif's wife Roheena, also work in the business, making it a real family affair.
"When I was at school I knew I always wanted to get into the family business," says Amir. "I saw the way my dad was running it and wanted to be my own boss. I can't sit behind a desk; I'm a hands-on person.
"Dad retired in 1996 but he still comes in now and again to give us a ticking off," jokes Amir. "We dread his visits - he comes in asking why we haven't done this and that and then goes home."
Amir gets involved in a range of community events. As well as sponsoring local team Llantwit Fardre FC, he also donates wine for PTA meetings at Gwauncelyn Primary School and OAP dances at the community centre, to name a few.
And he's still got more activities in the pipeline. There's a large school being built in Tonteg so Amir has plans for a healthy eating push. "I'm going to approach the headmaster about offering pupils a free bottle of water and a banana," he explains. "I hope it will attract more youngsters and raise awareness of the store. Although we've been here a long time, a lot of people don't know we exist because we're tucked away."
The school, which is expected to open in September, is likely to bring in more trade anyway. It's a secondary and primary school with 800 pupils, plus an adult education centre. "The houses are all getting snapped up because of the school, so we want to attract all these potential customers," says Amir. "Cardiff has become so expensive to buy in that people are looking outside. I'm waiting for the school to open before we launch a hot food-to-go operation."

close to home

In keeping with the store's community feel, Amir stocks a wide range of local products, including eggs, meats and pies, bacon, cheeses and speciality breads such as honey & seed, garlic, walnut and foccacia. "We sell local products alongside standard market leaders," says Amir. "We use the local bakery that supplied bread to the Queen at the hotel she stayed in recently for the opening of the Welsh Local Assembly.
"We believe in supporting local traders - both suppliers and the other traders in the precinct," adds Amir. "We refuse to sell newspapers because we're friends with the lady who runs the newsagent next door. There's no need for us to be competitive with her. We're busy, the paper shop is busy, and the fish and chip shop is busy - we all kickback from each other."
The store has been with Budgens for just three months, but already the new fascia is making a big impact. Since the refit, turnover has risen by £1,000 a day, from £18,000 a week to £25,000.
Amir explains what inspired him to join Budgens: "I needed a new challenge because I was getting bored with the way we were running the business. When we thought of joining another symbol, Dad suggested Budgens. I had never heard of them before because they only operated in England, but from our first meeting we clicked straightaway and I knew that Budgens would be the best choice for us.
"The management offer with Budgens makes life so easy," he adds. "And we get a lot of support from them. Any problems are sorted out immediately."
Fresh and chilled now plays a major role in Amir's store. "Our range of fresh produce was very basic before the refit," he says. "For example, we used to sell three cauliflowers a week, now we sell three or four cases."
But it's the response from customers that's been the icing on the cake. "Customers have been very impressed with the store and people who used to shop with us years ago we are slowly coming back.
"One customer wrote in recently to say thanks for the good service - I was shocked when I opened the letter because you just don't get that anymore. It goes to show that we can offer something that the big supermarkets can't - that's the personal service and chat. We know everyone's names here.
"There's an old people's home next door so the residents will often come in for a chat and if they can't carry their shopping, someone will deliver it for them," adds Amir. "We can't compete with Tesco's prices but it's not all about price - people come in for different reasons and they like
the personal touch. And we've got whatever they want, as well as good parking."
But while the extensive parking for the precinct is a pull for the store, it's been cause of many headaches for Amir. "We had a dispute with the council for five or six years about who owns the car park, which has so many potholes in it that it was putting people off from coming in," he explains. "I got sick of it just before Christmas because it was getting so bad that all seven businesses using it were losing trade. I put in a 40% share and all the traders put in 10%. It cost more than £10,000, which was our holiday money, but I couldn't let the car park stay in that state."

Raising the profile

Marketing evidently plays a big role in Amir's business strategy and he spent £10,000 on marketing for the Budgens launch.
"We advertised in the local paper and money-off coupons went into that. We held a competition in the newspaper, did some direct mail to 5,000 houses to make people aware of a new store opening up, and on the opening day we had lots of fun things for the kids such as a magician, which they all loved."
On top of the Budgens Great Local Deals leaflets, which go into the local paper every two or three weeks, Amir plans to do more marketing every six months, while continuing with his other community activities. "We're lucky because just across the road are big playing fields where various events are held. On the May Day bank holiday there was a mini rugby tournament, which we sponsored. We had the Budgens banners up, which all raises awareness. We will look to do more things like that this summer."
The store also holds regular wine tastings. "We put a gazebo and a few chairs out front," says Amir. "We get good support from suppliers like InBev who give us product and freebies to give out such as T-shirts and bottle openers.
They also sometimes provide prizes for raffles. In the past we've raffled things like mini fridges. We're just waiting for the weather to get better and then we'll hold wine
tasting evenings for three hours on a Friday or Saturday every two to four weeks."
Despite having Somerfield and Mace stores nearby and a 24-hour Tesco about three miles away, Amir isn't overly concerned about the competition. If a Tesco Express was to open on his doorstep, though, it would be a different story.
"Tesco Express definitely concerns us," he says. "I've got friends who run stores in Cardiff where a Tesco Express has opened opposite and their sales have gone right down. It's sad and unfair because it's just Tesco being greedy. One of my friends operates in a big student area in Cardiff where there was already quite a few convenience stores so it's shocking how Tesco managed to get planning permission. It's like they want to take over the world. You don't see Asda or Sainsbury doing that - it's just Tesco that's so aggressive."
But I have a sneaky suspicion that even Tesco couldn't hold Amir back from his big plans for the future. "I'd like to give it another two or three years with this store and then go for another one in this area," he says. "I want to build from new with Budgens, and within 10 years I would like to have a fleet of stores - about half a dozen of them." And if the success he's making of Tonteg is anything to go by, there's every chance that vision will become a reality.